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‘I received rape and death threats after I suggested schools use gender-neutral language’

My comments were wilfully misinterpreted by both mainstream and digital media and as a result I’ve had death threats, writes Tes’s mental health columnist

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My comments were wilfully misinterpreted by both mainstream and digital media and as a result I’ve had death threats, writes Tes’s mental health columnist

Unless you were under a rock, you probably saw some press coverage regarding my comments on gender at the GSA Annual Conference, yesterday. I’m very privileged that I have this column and (I’m told) a loyal audience of readers. Therefore let me take this opportunity give you a little glimpse behind the media curtain...

The speech

During my hour-long presentation, I covered all kinds of things: social media, how you can develop critical thinking skills in PHSE lessons, healthy coping strategies for academic stress in children, how to listen to pupil’s concerns nonjudgmentally. And for about five minutes, I talked about sexuality and gender and their relation to mental health.

The main thrust of my argument was this: a sense of belonging is one of the five fundamental psychological human needs. In making sweeping assumptions about gender, sexuality and identity we can create a culture in which anyone who deviates from the established archetypes feels excluded from the community and therefore doesn’t have this need fulfilled. One way we as educators could help to avoid this is by using gender-neutral language when addressing groups of pupils.

There are several schools who do this already. In fact, it was from observing practice in schools I got the idea. I used to refrain from saying ‘girls’ to single-sex groups of teenagers because it struck me as a bit patronising. Instead I used to say ‘ladies’. St Paul’s Girls School asks speakers specifically to refer to year groups as ‘students’ rather than ‘ladies’, firstly because there’s a lot of people who find the term ‘ladies’ patronising and secondly because they want to be as inclusive as possible. This strikes me as very good practice. It’s accurate, efficient and ensures everyone feels welcome.

It is worth noting that not one of the 500 or so delegates in attendance indicated that they thought my suggestions were controversial.

The junket

After I came off stage, I was taken into a small room, in which sat journalists from the national press and several education-sector publications. I was asked: "Can you talk more about the part where you said teachers shouldn’t use gender pronouns in case they offend transgender children?"

This is, quite clearly, not what I said. And I could see where this conversation was going. So, I decided to try and emphasise the benefits of using neutral language for all young people, rather than framing it as an inconvenient concession we have to make for the benefit of transgender people, alone.

I talked about how archetypes can become oppressive. It’s fine – indeed, accurate – to say, for example, that on average men are larger and stronger than women. But that’s a statement which relies on there being variance – an average is, by definition, the mid-point in a spectrum. There are some women who are larger and stronger than some men. The problem comes when the archetype becomes stereotype – when the law of average is converted into expectation. That’s when people start telling girls they "can’t" be good at sport, or boys that they "can’t" express emotion and that is the point where it starts to become oppressive and potentially damaging. Therefore, I said, I don’t think it’s helpful to keep reminding pupils of their gender in a learning environment.

Online press

It took precisely two hours for the pieces to start appearing online. By the time I went to bed that evening the final online headline I saw read "Tsar ORDERS Teachers Not To Say ‘Girls’ Because It REMINDS Pupils Of Their Gender".

There are a number of – let’s call them what they are, lies – here. Firstly that I was in a position to "order" teachers to do anything at all. The second was that the conversation was girl specific. And the third was the way the statement "I don’t think it’s helpful to remind children of their gender all the time" had been truncated and, thus, it’s meaning changed.

The papers

The next morning the story had been printed on the first five pages of virtually every best-selling newspaper in the country. The articles featured headlines such as "Government Advisor says We Should Ban Boys and Girls" alongside 800-word missives from opinion-piece writers speculating that I was part of the "transgender lobby", which was trying to "take away children’s innocence" by "forcing kids to question their sexuality".

Undeterred by the fact that I wasn’t appearing on the show, Piers Morgan went ahead and had a conversation with his own face on Good Morning Britain, speculating in what I’m reliably informed was a five-minute monologue about how I represented everything wrong with modern culture.

The aftermath

Meanwhile, I received death and rape threats, messages questioning my sanity, calling me a "f**king idiot", trying to insult me through the prism of questioning my own gender, calling me fat and ugly, suggesting I should be burned as a witch and, perhaps most offensively, claiming that I am single-handedly responsible for the current poor mental health of British children.

And here is my fear: I worry that, for the next few months, if my name happens to be mentioned in a pub, or an office, or school the next words spoken will be "isn’t she the one who says we aren’t allowed to say girls or boys anymore? PC Gone Mad! Nothing wrong with being a girl or a boy!".

That is how the media, for all the magnificent work it does to raise awareness of mental health, shuts down some of the complex conversations we need to have in order to better understand it.

So, please read on:

The nuance

I never insinuated that, if you’re speaking to an individual who you know is a girl and likes being a girl you shouldn’t be allowed to call that girl a "girl". Neither was I saying, as seemed to have been inexplicably gleaned in some camps, that all children who have interests and hobbies which fall outside of the prescribed gender norms are transgender.

Much of the press coverage seemed to have been predicated on the misunderstanding that the assembled headteachers were taking irrevocable instructions from me, that my suggestions would automatically become legal policy and that any teacher who refused to adhere to them would lose their job. No one – least of all me – was proposing any of this.

It’s also important not to conflate biological sex and gender. Your sex lives between your legs, your gender between your ears. If you want some clarity on the various terms being used within the LGBT+ community I recommend this video by Courtney Act.

Finally, it’s OK to be confused and to make mistakes. Progress inevitably involves a period of experimentation. The important thing is to try to be kind. For, as a message I received from a self-described "straight, white middle aged man from Wales" said: “all you’re really proposing is good manners”.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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